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Posts tagged ‘teen characters in novels’

Comparing Teen Fiction And Adult Fiction, by Sam Hawksmoor

I don’t think there is any conscious process for differentiating between a teen novel and adult.  Clearly in one the young adult must be forefront and in the other, adults.  Obviously adults can figure in both, but as my editor and the writer Beverley Birch says, one must give prominence to the young adult – never lose sight that it is about them.

I know from my own teaching I had one particular student who insisted upon populating her children’s novels with many, many adults.  I used to say constantly who is the story focused on?  Whose story is this?  The kid or the adults?  Never allow that confusion to arise.

I learned this the hard way.  I have a novel out there called Mean Tide, written under a pseudonym, which concerns a child who has had chemo and is sent to live with his psychic grandma by the river in Greenwich.  He meets another kid there, who is silent because of various traumas. The book is populated with adults, all with incredibly rich lives and opinions. To be honest this book straddles adult/children’s fiction and falls between two stools.  I couldn’t see it when I was writing it, as logic would dictate that when a kid goes to live with adults you have to show the adults and bring them to life.  Perhaps I added too much colour.  If your main protagonist is only twelve – there is only so much you can do with a young kid before it becomes unbelievable. Nevertheless as a writer you learn. (One hopes)

Writing for teens you can concentrate on their lives and reduce the impact adults have on their day-to-day existence.  Adults usually act as a restraint on the excesses of teens so the less they are around, the more that can happen.  S F Hinton’s The Outsiders featured this.  This was about teens getting into mischief without constraint and led by a semi-adult teen who did not have anyone’s best interests at heart.  Stephen King’s Stand By Me totally had this focus.  Not just about the kids but also about their perspective on life, the world around them and the risks they take.  It’s important to remember that these novels are written for teens and not adults (even though adults will and can enjoy them).  Kids know by the time they’re 12 that there is no justice in this world. Bullies get away with murder,, people lie, you lie, you haven’t yet formed your own opinions about things and you have doubts about everything.  Somehow you get up and carry on.  The whole world is a critic. You most likely suck at sport or math, and no one but Alice likes you and you don’t like Alice.  This is the teen world.

My approach to adult fiction is to have the plot or situation down first.  If based on a true-life story then it’s about fleshing out the characters, thinking not just about who they are but about their weaknesses and strengths. I like it when a readers connects enough with the character that they start to consider what they wear, eat or say on their own (until that starts to happen organically for me as a reader, I’m not truly in the zone).

With teen fiction, it’s the same process but with the added spice of knowing that kids won’t always take the logical step that may seem more obvious to an adult.  A boy or girl won’t instinctively know that the one they love is bad for them – even if others are saying so.  They have no experience to go on.  This is fresh to them.  All their mistakes are first time mistakes.  As a teacher I used to see girls suffering heartbreak, yet it was clear to me their affections were misplaced.  Now I see break-ups dealt with by text or on Facebook and how cold and heartless all that seems.  You are left to cry on your own I guess without the confrontation.  It can go the other way – irrational hysterical behaviour in the classroom when one girl discovers another is seeing her bloke and all three are in the class before you seething…

Adults generally don’t seethe. They might want to get revenge but the older you are the more numb you usually feel about things.  Kids are NEVER numb.  They can be unfeeling however.

Take Natalie Portman’s character in the movie  Leon.  She is entranced by the slightly simple hitman who protects her from Gary Oldman’s evil cop.  She is excited by the idea of becoming a hitwoman.  She isn’t thinking about moral considerations here.  She’s thinking about revenge, and Leon is simply showing her his one and only skill.  It’s not a kid’s movie but has a kid very much at the forefront.  She is what I remember.  Her pain and heartache and her loyalty.  This would be teen fiction now I think. Capture that intensity and bottle it.


Sam Hawksmoor’s author website:

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Writing Teen Novels

Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels, by Elizabeth Wein

One feature that I feel is characteristic of teen fiction is the divide between young people and adults.  It can show up as a contrast – between the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles.  Or it can show up as a simple lack of understanding between the adults and the teens in the novel.  Where I find this divide most interesting, and probably most disturbing, is when it’s part of a power play.  This is the kind of conflict that I find myself most often describing in my own novels.

Teenagers don’t appear to have much power in Western society.  They can’t legally drink, drive, vote, fight in a war, marry, hold a job or live on their own until they reach a certain age that adults consider appropriate.  Basically, they are dependent on the adults around them to make sensible decisions for them. These can include life changing or even life saving decisions and, to the maturing mind, not being able to make one’s own decisions is often a source of deep conflict.

The kind of relationship that I explore in all my novels is that of the teen breaking free from the control of the adult world and learning to make decisions and accept responsibility for those decisions.  I don’t really have a moral message to deliver in my writing, but if I did it would simply be that I want people to accept responsibility for their own actions.  That’s what being a teen is all about.

In Code Name Verity, my most recent novel, the young heroines find themselves involved in assisting the British war effort during World War II.  Not only is the dire global situation created for them by adults, but the Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Maddie and Special Operations Executive agent ‘Verity’ find their lives almost entirely guided by the orders and restrictions of superior officers.  When Verity is captured by the Gestapo and Maddie is forced into hiding, the girls’ literal movements and freedom become restricted by the older people in charge of imprisoning or hiding them.  How the girls cope with these situations and win back their individual freedom, figuratively and literally, is the core of the book.

Even a reader with the most ordinary daily existence should be able to relate to this theme, because rebelling against authority or learning to work with it is what people do in their teenage years.

Fiction is good practise for real life.  Perhaps the teen/adult divide is one of the hallmarks of what makes a book a ‘teen novel’ rather than an ‘adult novel’.


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Writing Teen Novels

On Writing Imperfect Characters, by Alane Ferguson

Writing for young people is an incredible fit for me, underscored by the fact that my husband just called me an ‘Adult Teenager’!  (Okay, so maybe I made up a twist where every time Ron loses at Rumikub, he (or I) has to eat a Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Bean, and it’s possible that I laughed until tears streamed down my face when he bit into ‘skunk’!)  So there is some truth to the idea that I’ve never completely grown up.   Fortunately, my inner-teen gets channeled into Young Adult novels that I love to read as well as write, and that’s important if you want to write for an audience as specific as YA.  Additionally, as a YA author, I have the opportunity to teach up-and-coming authors through The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators by way of their workshop classes.  When I read through those manuscripts, I see the same problems time and time again.  I thought I’d take this month’s post to dish on common mistakes and how you, dear potential writers, can head off some pitfalls as you create your own dynamic worlds!

The first thing I like to remind YA students is that a writer’s job basically mimics creating a movie, only in our world we get to be the writer, director, actor, cinematographer, and, well, you get the idea.  A writer’s job is to make the setting tangible to the reader.  More importantly, your work must focus on a teen protagonist who reads as a believable, breathing, complex being.  That may sound like a straightforward point, but you’d be shocked at how many times I’ve seen an adult channel their thoughts/ideas/morals into their teen character’s point of view, with alarming results.  Their characters tend to be wise, pious, respectful young people who beg enlightened adults to rain pearls of wisdom upon their grateful, young heads.  Wrong!  It not only reads as inauthentic, but no teen will be able to relate to a person who turns to their mom or dad for ‘the answer’.  It’s what I call ‘adult-writing-for-teens-fantasy-syndrome’ and it is simply the kiss of death when it comes to storytelling.  The teen protagonist is on a journey.  He or she must make the climb.  Adult characters may help, of course, but a story for a young person must have a nuanced teen at its center, a person who will, at times, make a wrong decision.  But isn’t that what happened when we were young?  And, if we are honest, isn’t it still happening?  It is the realistic parts of ourselves that translates into an interesting character.

My protagonist Cameryn Mahoney is currently pulling up Colorado stakes and moving to Hollywood in order to participate in a reality show.  In terms of her future, it’s not the best idea, but it’s an adventure!  The wise Dr. Moore warns Cameryn of the danger, but no one can tell my protagonist what to do – she tosses his advice to the wind and goes for it.  Remember, a perfect character is perfectly awful.  You can’t have light without the dark, and so it is when you create a protagonist.  They must have shades of gray in order to keep the character you create relatable.

This gradation of color is of vital importance.  (As a rule of thumb, the peripheral characters can and will be less fleshed out, which is fine.  Right now I’m honing in on main characters.)  When I write from Cameryn’s point of view, I know her foibles as well as her strengths, and I dutifully record her stumbles as well as her triumphs.  Here’s one of the ways I illustrate this in my classes: I’ll ask my students to point out the flaws of various, well-known personalities.  What, I will ask, is Harry Potter’s character flaw?  Invariably, someone will say, ‘His scar.’  No, his scar is his physical imperfection, but his personality flaw is that he refuses to accept help, which is essential to becoming a fully rounded human being.  (This from the amazing JK Rowling herself!)  Do you see the difference?  For those of you who dream of passing from ‘reader’ to ‘creator’, don’t be afraid of writing an imperfect character.


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